The Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 inspired legendary blues guitarist and singer Memphis Minnie to write “When the Levee Breaks” -- later covered by legendary blues rock band Led Zeppelin.
“Now, cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do you no good,” Minnie wrote. “When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move.”
So far, during the Great Mississippi River Flood of 2011, the levees have held -- not to mention the rest of the federal government’s $13 billion network of floodwalls, floodways, spillways and other flood-control facilities built up and down the river after the disastrous flood of 1927.
The 1927 flood killed more than 1,000 people and displaced 700,000 in seven states. So far, this one has claimed not a single human life.
Flooding along several of the Mississippi’s backed-up tributaries has chased more than 500 Memphis area residents to emergency shelters. But those numbers pale in comparison to the 10,000 Hurricane Katrina refugees who sought shelter in Memphis -- including 1,731 Gulf Coast students.
Here in Memphis, as nearly a billion gallons of water flow past us every minute and slowly surround us every hour, this gradual natural disaster has, if anything, increased our faith in God, government and media.
“News services have done a great job of raising awareness about the unfolding disaster and bringing the plight of the helpless to public attention,” Dr. Warner Davis, pastor of Germantown Presbyterian Church told me this week.
“And governmental emergency services have been quick to respond to the need. Which is to say that while it is apparent that God is using faith communities and persons of faith to relieve the suffering, I see the hand of God at work through secular agencies, too.”
Memphis developed as a major American city in the 19th-century largely because of its flood-free location, high on a bluff above the Mississippi River.
That doesn’t stop Old Man River from putting the fear of God into this Delta metropolis every now and then.
“I’m worried, but what can I do? It’s an act of God,” Memphis resident Diane Burns told The Commercial Appeal last weekend as she joined hundreds of her neighbors in emergency shelters while the world’s second largest river (by drainage area) invaded their low-lying neighborhoods.
The Mississippi crested at 47.8 feet at Memphis Tuesday, the second highest level on record and about 13 feet above normal flood stage. Normally, a half-mile of water separates Downtown Memphis from Arkansas. Now, the Arkansas is three miles away.
Hundreds of home and business owners have lost everything, thousands of farmers have lost early crops and grazing land, thousands of workers (including hourly wage-earners at nine flooded casinos just south of Memphis) have lost their jobs. Deficit-laden local and state governments are spending millions to contain the damage.
The high water flooded the city’s major riverfront park and sent this weekend’s annual World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest and its dry ribs to dry land farther inland.
By the time President Obama visits on Monday, the river will have begun to drop here, but it will continue to rise and spread downriver, putting even more pressure on levees that protect millions of people.
“So far, the system is performing as designed,” Bob Anderson, spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Mississippi River Division in Vicksburg, Miss., told The Commercial Appeal.
So far in Memphis, where 27 flood gates are closed for the first time since they were erected in the 1930s, the government’s flood-control system of levees, walls and pump stations is working.
The community’s flood-response system of ready volunteers, good neighbors and prayer stations is holding up as well.
“This demonstrates that God can work not only in acts of compassion like feeding and sheltering displaced persons, but by using the gifts God has given us, such as our minds for careful planning to ease suffering,” said Rev. Steve Montgomery, pastor of Idlewild Presbyterian Church in Memphis.
Monday evening, Rev. Irene Booker of Mt. Pisgah AME Church joined eight others in a prayer circle outside Memphis City Hall, a few hours before the Mississippi River crested a block away at 47.87 feet.
“God, you took a little bit of water and a little bit of wind and called your people together,” Booker said. “Look how your people are rising to the occasion. Memphis is coming together.”
Lord willing and the levees don’t break.
David Waters is the former editor of On Faith. He currently runs Faith In Memphis.